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S. 2261 (115th): Secure Elections Act

Computer hackers have been able to hack some American voting machines in only seven minutes.

A new bill could eliminate paperless voting machines, which experts say are the most vulnerable to hacking and tampering. It would also expand the use of post-election audits, which are currently rare and usually only used in event of a recount.


About one out of four Americans currently vote on touchscreen voting machines which produce no paper trail, like a receipt.

This worries many, because such electronic systems are much more susceptible to hacking or other malpractice. And without a non-electronic confirmation that a person voted, any evidence of potential tampering could disappear — and do so without anyone even knowing until it was too late.

What the bill does

The Secure Elections Act has three major aims:

Get rid of all paperless voting machines. Although many states are already moving away from paperless, budget restrictions for cash-strapped states prevent many other states from following suit. So the bill provides federal grants to states to switch their voting systems in an amount to be determined by an independent panel of cybersecurity experts appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security. States applying for the money would have to submit a list of all paperless voting machines in their jurisdiction, and would only receive the amount of money necessary to replace them with versions that read paper ballots.

Incentivize states to perform post-election audits for most or even _all_elections. No longer would it primarily occur for extremely close results or recounts, as is currently the case.

Expand information sharing regarding voting systems. The Department of Homeland Security determined that 21 states had their election systems targeted by Russian hackers in 2016 — but it took almost a year for the department to notify those states.

The legislation was Introduced December 21 by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), and labelled S. 2261 in the Senate.

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill would help protect one of the core American democratic ideals from dispute or damage.

“Safe and free elections run by individual states are at the core of our national identity,” Sen. Lankford said in a press release. “We were born as a nation because patriots stood up against foreign tyranny.”

“It is imperative that we strengthen our election systems and give the states the tools they need to protect themselves and the integrity of voters against the possibility of foreign interference,” Lankford continued. “In this new digital age, we should ensure the states have the resources they need to protect our election infrastructure.”

The bill also stops short of what some see as the potential danger of a federal power grab on what has traditionally been a state-run issue.

“It does not command states to act in specific ways, it does not hijack election administration from counties, states, or municipalities, and it limits the federal government’s role to advising and empowering state and local jurisdictions to run their proverbial railroads,” writes Lawfare.


Although supportive of the overall bill in general, Harvard Kennedy School Cyber Security Project Director Michael Sulmeyer writes of several potential issues.

For one, the bill puts nearly all of the onus for the federal government’s role on the Department of Homeland Security.

“DHS is not the only federal agency that handles threat intelligence: The intelligence community and the FBI need to be committed to this cause as well,” Sulmeyer says. “If they don’t share relevant information with DHS or are slow to do so, there’s little DHS or the states can do.”

Another issue is that many states which arguably should apply for the grants may still not.

“For all the bill offers to states and local jurisdictions, they still need to take the initiative to receive the shared information, to apply for grants, and to participate in bug bounties,” Sulmeyer writes.

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted a bipartisan mix of five cosponsors: three Democrats and two Republicans.

They span the gamut ideologically, from conservatives like Lankford, to moderates like Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), to progressives like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).

However, some other similar election-related measures introduced this Congress have not attracted the level of urgency that advocates hoped for. This is likely at least in part because President Trump has refused to accept that Russian interference in the 2016 election occurred.

This bill awaits a possible vote in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Last updated Jan 24, 2022. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Dec 21, 2017.

Secure Elections Act

This bill gives the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) primary responsibility within the federal government for sharing information about election cybersecurity incidents, threats, and vulnerabilities with federal entities and election agencies.

DHS shall establish an advisory panel of independent experts to develop guidelines on election cybersecurity, including standards for procuring, maintaining, testing, auditing, operating, and updating election systems.

DHS shall award election system cybersecurity and modernization grants to states to implement the advisory panel's guidelines. Grants shall be awarded to: (1) remediate vulnerabilities identified by a cybersecurity evaluation, (2) replace electronic voting systems that are not optical scanners that read paper ballots, and (3) reimburse states for the inspection of marked paper ballots.

DHS shall establish a Hack the Election program, including a recurring competition, to facilitate and encourage the identification and reporting of election cybersecurity vulnerabilities by independent technical experts.